Saturday, July 2, 2011


Diamond power. Livre des Merveilles. BN ms. fr. 2810, f. 182
I've been thinking about the multiplicity and double-edged sword of wonder.  It is, like so many words that hold my fascination these days, not Latinate in origin, but rather from the Old English, etymollgically dubbed "of unknown origin."  I love how it works: even saying the word - you purse your lips for the "w" (which gives your face that look of surprise that, yes, wonder first brings), and your lips part to end the word with the full syllable of "er" (leaving you, as wonder so often does, open-mouthed).  The word "wonder" is a close cousin to "marvel," a word which, aside from being thoroughly, beautifully, and, sure, wondrously explored by Stephen Greenblatt, comes from the Latin mirabilia, and so will not hold us here. (But isn't it interesting that already here, at the etymological level, there are two families for this sensation?) It is a sensation (an event? an emotion? an experience?) that at once propels intimacy and distance.  When I read of a land of Ind so fecund that its diamonds are male and female and procreate to have little diamond babies in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, I am completely captivated: I stop at this idea, I think on it, I am there in this fantasy: I turn it over in my mind, my hand can imagine this land.

And they grow together, male and female.  And they be nourished with the dew of heaven.  And they engender commonly and bring forth small children, that multiply and grow all the year. (Chapter 17)

Such vital diamonds have the power to repel wild beasts, and this is the virtue that is illuminated in the wondrous Livre des merveilles manuscript made for the Duc de Berry in the early 15th century and given over and over again until it reached Fran├žois Ier in the early 16th century. Procreating diamonds are easy to imagine (easy to picture), but hard to represent. At the same time, a distance is created - how far away, how far beyond the reach of my mind, can this land be, that it produces such wonder?  The dynamic of wonder (and here it is not that different from the marvelous) is the dynamic of colonialism: objects of wonder, become objects of desire, become objects of possession.  Speed up wonder, and it becomes rapacious taking. I have students agonize about feeling wonder for distant or other cultures; I have seen them try to normalize or demystify the most wondrous things so as to not feel wonder.  And I have not quite known what to tell them. For me, without wonder (without surprise, without open-endedness), there is no change, no expansion (and I mean of the mind, but boy, what a colonizing word!).  At the same time, in taking your breath away, wonder prompts your hand to take. Or so goes much of Western Europe's relationship with the world since the 1770s.

Tourists at the Buddha's Tree
But wonder has something else up its sleeve.  In its multiplicity, it also has the idea of wondering, a more critical mode than marveling.  Marvel and marveling are closely related in experience; but a critical space creates a difference between wonder and wondering.  I sit in Indiana full of wonder for all of the imagined Indias that I have been reading about, while Mac walks in India, wondering in more precise ways, already bringing back scenarios to leave me wondering: the tourist culture that he shared with Hindu travelers at the site of the tree where the Buddha received Enlightenment. This is the more complicated wondering which the bold, broad strokes of wonder seek to efface, but which, when taken apart (examined critically), will start to speak volumes about a contemporary India, perhaps more free of the wondrous mists with which colonialism (and the proto-colonialism of Mandeville?) (and the post-colonialism of globalization?) enshrouds it.  I can think of many wrong ways to approach India, but no right way.  One could talk about the ethics of wonder, and the ethics of wondering, couldn't one?

From the Hindustan Times
In the absence of the time to do so, I can only appreciate the fashion advice provided here for the monsoon season rapidly swooping into India.  Is the difference for me that wonder is more archaic a sensation somehow? That wondering is a more modern, critical mode? This seems self-serving: I can wonder with impunity, as long as I follow it up with a good dose of wondering?  Hmmm.  I am on this edge: I love the sensation of wonder: it's immediate and thus honest. I fear the sensation of wonder: even though it's immediate, it cannot exist without preconceptions (one of the qualifications of the wondrous is the new - thus the worthy phrase "child-like wonder").

But I'm going to end with the possibility of repeated wonder. Of something - my children playing with friends on a summer evening - that though it is very preconceived (it's downright sentimental), and has been experienced many times, never ceases to fill me with wonder.  I wonder (I do!) about Mac coming back to this place, to these sensations, after what he has experienced.  I am wondering how we will all have been changed by this trip. Mac has gone before us into India, and our imaginations have followed: me in Mandeville, Oliver through an obsession with his Oriental Expedition Lego set, Iris through her questions to my student Vishal about the Red Fort, and Eleanor in her inexplicable use of the word "Maharajah" last night (where did she learn it???).   Wonder is wayward: it is here, there, and maybe even everywhere.


  1. Wow, isn't Eleanor really young?
    I'm glad to hear that Mac continues his studies of India. I got so much out of his Art of India class!

  2. hey there - Eleanor is 5 (going on I don't know what: at least 13, third child and all). i'll pass your lovely comment on to Mac: he is busy processing _hundreds_ of images of India - the course is going to grow!